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Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos III – Mixed Fortunes near Mytilene

Continuing the blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…

The writer at Mosaik with bags made from recycled life jackets
The writer at Mosaik with bags made from recycled life jackets

After visiting the workshop at Mosaik in Mytilene where life jackets are recycled and made into bags, I went to the refugee camp at Kara Tepe. This turned out to be a frustrating experience because although I had an official permit, I was not allowed to visit the camp.  I learnt later that there had been some sort of disturbance and that I’d arrived at a difficult time.

Katerina Elarinea with Finding Families

Katerina Nikolarea and the  Restoring Family Links initiative

I withdrew and sought the help of my new friends at the University of the Aegean, especially Katarina Nikolarea, who volunteers for the Mytilene branch of the Hellenic Red Cross. She very kindly arranged for me to visit Kara Tepe the following day. I also  interviewed Katarina and she told me how the ordinary people of Lesvos had responded generously and spontaneously in the early days of the crisis by giving the refugees clothes and shoes, and food and water. Prices were discounted in shops to help refugees. This story often doesn’t get told. The help given by ordinary Greek people on the island is even more laudable given the economic problems that Greece  has experienced in recent years.

Katarina told me about how her local branch of Hellenic Red Cross was helping  refugees to keep in touch with one another. The Restoring Family Links initiative helps refugees to find and contact family members and loved ones. I learnt that families and friends are often split up by the people traffickers in order to cram as many people into the boats as possible. Refugees sometimes have no idea whether their nearest and dearest have even survived the crossing so this is a really important thing to do.

Patrol vessel in Mytilene harbour
Patrol vessel in Mytilene harbour

At the height of the crisis last year (2015) up to 6,000 refugees were arriving on the beaches of Lesvos every day,  and this on an island with a Greek population of only 87,000. Refugees were sleeping rough on the streets and the island’s authorities were largely left to cope on their own to begin with. Since the signing of an agreement with Turkey earlier in 2016 the numbers of refugees have fallen dramatically but there are still camps with people either waiting for their papers to travel to countries in mainland Europe or to be returned to Turkey. They have the right of appeal and relatively few have returned to Turkey. Vessels from Frontex patrol the straits between Lesvos and Turkey.

The following day I succeeded in visiting the camp at Kara Tepe but sadly I was not allowed to take photographs nor film any interviews. I took some toys to give to the children in the camp. A guide showed me round. It was well-managed, tidy and comfortable, with a range of facilities for the guests as she called them and everyone seemed content in the circumstances. In the middle of the camp there is a monument built by the refugees using recycled material from boats they’d used to cross to Lesvos. My guide was not at liberty to answer questions that were considered sensitive, such as how many guests there  were at Kara Tepe. I certainly wanted to respect the dignity of the refugees but I feel that we lost an opportunity to do some good in raising the profile of the refugees as part of the collecting life project at Manchester Museum.  I was very grateful for the opportunity to see Kara Tepe and I naturally respect the wishes of the authorities in protecting the dignity of the people staying there but it means I was unable to make any visual record of my visit.

All was not lost, however, because later in the afternoon I visited a camp run by volunteers for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa. Again my visit there came about because of the good will of staff the University of the Aegean, to whom I am very grateful.

This, the third instalment of the series of blog posts about my visit to Lesvos in December 2016, will be continued tomorrow with an account of a visit to the refugee camp at Pikpa.

Collecting Life: a Refugee’s Life Jacket from Lesvos – I

Lesvos beach

A beach on the south east coast of Lesvos looking towards Mytilene

The prospect of visiting a Greek island is always an enticing one but arguably less so during the winter, and certainly not flying in low over the raging Aegean in a twin propellor aircraft, pitching and rolling and buffeted by strong winds, surrounded by fellow passengers crossing themselves. I was landing on the island of Lesvos.   My wife Christine and I had been on holiday to the island five years earlier, but that was before the refugee crisis in 2015 when literally hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq crossed the short stretch of water that separates Lesvos from Turkey.

My visit to Lesvos in December 2016 was part of Manchester Museum’s thematic collecting or collecting for life project.  Earlier in the autumn the Collections Team curators met the director, Nick Merriman, and reframed the project so that it focused more on migration that results in long-term and permanent settlement of a country or land by people, plants or animals. Lesvos attracted our interest because of the very large numbers of refugees who were going there en route to mainland Europe. This was precisely the topical issue that we wanted to cover as part of the thematic collecting or collecting for life project. The aim of the project is to reinvigorate collecting in museums by collecting thematically, particularly objects that have current significance, that will engage the public.

The crisis on Lesvos had made a personal impact on me when I saw coverage on the 6 o’clock news of a British ex pat couple, the Kempsons, helping refugees come ashore on the north coast of the island. My wife Christine and I had met Eric and Philippa Kempson six months previously  when we holidayed on the island and they invited us in for coffee. My job in December 2016 was to collect one of the life jackets or ‘sosivia’ from the Town Hall in Mytilene and to take it back to Manchester to put on display.

Interview with Dr Evi Sampanikou at the University of the Aegean
Interview with Dr Evi Sampanikou at the University of the Aegean

Prior to the visit and with the help and advice of a number of people at the University of Manchester and the University of Strathclyde I’d made contact with the University of the Aegean on Lesvos and arranged to meet Associate Professor Evi Sampanikou  and other academics to talk to them about the refugee crisis. I interviewed Prof Sampanikou standing on a large chessboard made of recycled life jackets. It is the life jacket more than any other object that symbolises the refugee crisis. I learnt that the illicit trafficking of people across the straits even has its own subtle material culture and certain nationalities favour certain colours of life jacket. Blue I discovered was popular in the initial wave of  immigration with Afghan refugees.

Later in the morning  I met the Mayor’s Senior Advisor, Mr Andriotis and interviewed him on film about the refugee crisis. He asked me to return the next day to collect a life jacket and a permit to visit the refugee camp at Kara Tepe to the north of Mytilene.

Hand over of the life jacket in the Town Hall in Mytilene by Mr Marios Andriotis, Senior Advisor to he Mayor.
Hand over of the life jacket in the Town Hall in Mytilene by Mr Marios Andriotis, Senior Advisor to he Mayor.

The following day I was on tenter hooks sitting in one of the offices in the Town Hall waiting for the life jacket to be delivered and was very  relieved when it came. We signed a form to transfer ownership to Manchester Museum and I began to think that I’d achieved what I’d set out to do…

The next instalment of this blog about my visit to the island of Lesvos to collect a refugee’s life jacket will be released shortly.

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